All you can ask for when watching a major-league baseball game is good, honest effort from both sides; if you also get solid, above-average performances from the players on your team and a tightly-played, close game with one key play that decides it, you've got one of the better games you've seen.
That's what we had Saturday at Wrigley Field, and happily, and somewhat surprisingly, the Cubs defeated the Cardinals 3-2, the first time they've beaten their division rivals after five straight losses since May 14... the day before that horrific 12-game losing streak began. Not only that, but weather conditions were one of those 100% perfect days -- sunshine, pleasant temperatures, low humidity -- that you want to put in a jar and let out in January, when we need it most.
Between May 15 and June 24, the Cubs went 9-28. I think all of us would like to forget those five weeks. But since then they've gone 17-10 and generally, played very good baseball. This is a good sign for the future.
Saturday afternoon, it was Reed Johnson's surprise pinch-bunt that scored Tony Campana from third base with the winning run. He had to be doing that on his own, not on a sign; it was perfectly placed and Cardinals pitcher Brian Fuentes stumbled a bit while fielding the ball, having no chance to get Johnson at first base -- if he had, it would have been inning over, since there were two out.
Before that eighth inning, Jeff Samardzija threw two different baseball games. One of them happened in the first and sixth innings, during which he issued five walks, a hit and a pair of runs, both of which scored on outs (in the first on a force play, in the sixth on a sac fly).
But between the first and sixth, Samardzija gave up two singles and a walk, struck out four and otherwise had the Cardinals beating the ball into the ground; all told, in his six innings the Cardinals hit just five balls out of the infield (two fly outs and the three hits Shark allowed). It was a weird, but ultimately not-bad outing for Samardzija.
St. Louis' Joe Kelly had a similarly strange outing. Three of the first four Cubs had hits, including a hustle triple by Alfonso Soriano that drove in a pair of runs, giving the Cubs a 2-1 lead that they held until Samardzija again lost control in the sixth. But after Soriano's triple, Kelly retired 14 straight Cubs until David DeJesus led off the sixth with a single. Then Kelly put down three more Cubs in order.
In the seventh, Bryan LaHair worked a walk and Campana ran for him. Campana nearly got picked off on a couple of throws over, but eventually stole second and went to third on a Geovany Soto single. Two outs and a pitching change later, Johnson drove in the eventual winning run with his bunt. I was somewhat surprised the Cubs didn't try a suicide squeeze -- or even a straight steal attempt of home -- on the batter before Johnson, Luis Valbuena, a lefthanded hitter facing a lefthanded pitcher. But they saved the aggressiveness for a two-out situation, a nice thing to see. Obviously, you can't do this all the time, but it was nice to see it executed... something rare for Cubs teams of recent years.
The Cubs might have scored more runs in that inning had the correct call been made on Starlin Castro's grounder to short with two out; he was called out but replays showed him clearly safe. Dale Sveum, looking about as animated as I've seen him, came out to argue and was ejected. (Hint: replay review would avoid all of this.)
Shawn Camp had an uneventful inning and Carlos Marmol finished up for his 13th save; Marmol gave up a hit to Daniel Descalso on the first pitch he threw, but otherwise was effective; I'd still like the Cubs to explore a deal for Marmol, but apart from the nearly-blown game in New York just before the All-Star break, Marmol's been pretty decent this month.
Speaking of trades... the Cubs haven't made any. But -- and I stress I have not heard any specific rumors -- I would be very surprised if Tuesday came and the Cubs hadn't made at least one, maybe more, deals. I still believe Ryan Dempster will be somewhere else come Tuesday at 3 p.m. CT, the deadline. Where? No idea. Maybe the Braves will revisit a deal. Maybe the Cubs can include Jeff Baker in a trade with Dempster -- why else would Baker have started at second base today? Baker has started at 2B only one other time this year. Maybe some team wanted to see him at 2B; he handled six chances flawlessly and even though he went 0-for-3, he had some decent at-bats.
Regarding my call for Soriano to be dealt in my game preview today, I still think it might be a good idea, but let me raise a devils-advocate question. Soriano has hit well this year; it could end up as his best offensive season as a Cub. He's running the bases better -- witness today's triple, his first since last year -- and playing a decent left field. Do you think the Cubs could squeeze out two more years of this? Or even one, maybe being able to deal him next summer, when there's a lot less money left on his contract?
Food for thought, anyway, especially when Brett Jackson, the presumed replacement in the lineup, is still struggling at Triple-A.
The Cubs will go for the series win Sunday with Paul Maholm on the mound.